Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Cultural Balkanization


The cultural mandarins in New York City are pushing for cultural fragmentation. At least, that’s the impression given by New York Times Magazine’s recent March 12 “Music Issue.” All is identity. In the Introduction to the issue staff writer Nitsuh Abebe says this:

“In 2017, identity is the topic at the absolute center of our conversations about music.” (“Our” being individuals at the newspaper?) And: “For better or worse, it’s all identity now.”

Abebe discusses the 1950’s as the “last great gasp” of “ethnicities,” but his is a distortion of American musical history. What made the 1950’s noteworthy is the fusion which took place between various threads of roots music, becoming “rock n’ roll”—melding into the pop music of the day and displacing it. The most visible of the new artists, Elvis Presley, counted among his influences country, gospel, rhythmn and blues, and Italian-American crooners like Dean Martin. Presley’s movies would place him continually in Latin and Hawaiian settings, motifs from those cultures’ music appearing in his songs—which were often as not written by Jewish-American songwriters in the Tin Pan Alley tradition. Elvis even did knockoffs of operatic arias!: “It’s Now or Never,” and “Surrender.” In other words, everything was fair game.

Elvis placed songs in the #1 position on the three main charts; pop, r & b, and country; the first time this happened.

Not just Presley fused various styles into his presentation and art. Chuck Berry’s first hit, “Maybelline,” was a reworking of a country song. Further, Berry’s voice had a ringing quality to it that for the time sounded “white.”

The best example of conscious fusion in the music of the 1950’s and early 60’s comes with Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., who crafted a sound he believed would appeal to everyone. R & B blended with pop form. Gordy marketed this as “The Sound of Young America”—and it was, as kids from all backgrounds bought the records.

Pop music then was truly and distinctively American, embracing the musical backgrounds of all Americans.

This seems a more unifying goal to have, than the fragmentations of now.


In the Times Music Issue we get not just identity, but obsession with identity. A good example from the issue is the essay by Jenny Zhang. Hers is not the positive outlook of a Berry Gordy, who believed anything could be accomplished—and then went and accomplished it. Zhang mentions the “ways in which white supremacy had warped each of us.” Yet she’s confused about fundamentals. In discussing DIY/punk music of the 1990’s, Zhang says “no one much questioned why a subculture that saw itself as rebelling against the establishment was quite so dominated by white men.”

But it was an economic and business rebellion (as was the print-zine movement of the same decade, which I was part of). A rebellion against monopoly and elitism. Against tops-down thinking, and the idea that all culture must come out of L.A. and New York. A business rebellion in the same way rock n’ roll, promoted by carny barkers and street hustlers like Colonel Tom Parker, Sam Phillips, Alan Freed, and Dick Clark, was. Hundreds of upstart storefront record companies like Sun Records took away half the market share of the “Big Four” record giants—an almost unprecedented business revolution (which led to pushback via Congressional “payola” hearings intended to bust the newcomers).

Most of the DIY “punks” of the 1980’s and 90’s were white men, sure. But let’s remember that at any time in American history, including now, a huge segment of the white male population lives in grinding poverty. For an example of this study the biography of Kurt Cobain, who through the popularity of his band Nirvana took subculture grunge music, originally recorded and promoted by small Northwest outfits like Sub Pop, into the cultural mainstream.


What can be said finally about the Times Music Issue?

A.) Maybe that someone is pushing an agenda—agendas being pushed are generally in the interest of power or dollars. I opt for multinational conglomerates as the chief culprit, who today control most of the music business and whose focus isn’t on authentic American culture, but global profits.

B.) Also that when new cultural changes begin happening (see literature now) those well-schooled souls inhabiting Manhattan skyscrapers are often the last to know.


(At New Pop Lit we believe in American literature—and will demonstrate this with our upcoming “All-Time American Writers Tournament.”)

Monday, March 06, 2017

Closed Circuit


Is the New York literary establishment out of touch with what’s happening in middle America—and in literature itself?

One can make a strong case for that based on the recent Bomb magazine conversation between lauded authors Sam Lipsyte and George Saunders. The smugness, even arrogance of their viewpoint is palpable.

They (two of the more privileged writers in America) are out to fight oppression. They let you know up front they’re the good guys. The rightness of their viewpoint is assumed. Never once—not for a microsecond—is there an attempt to examine their own premises. Why would they?—when the groupthink of the moment of the literary establishment backs their view on the new administration 99.8%. Which leaves Saunders and Lipsyte in the position of moral crusaders—or at least, missionaries for their cause—out to convert the world.

George Saunders explains how he performed, for a Trump supporter, “an English 101 deconstruction” of an article; going through the text for her “point by point.” Kind of like a Twelve Step-program intervention. Saunders dashed it off—the “101” assuring us it wasn’t too great of a task. He bemoans the necessity of having to do this—but someone has to reach out to the ignorant mob. His task being to re-educate the little people of America who unwittingly voted for the wrong person.

In his intellectual complacency, George Saunders doesn’t realize one could easily deconstruct his own positions, as expressed in the interview. “Point by point.”

I’ll look at two of them.

FIRST is the ready use of the word “fascist,” keeping with an ongoing narrative about the new administration. The two esteemed writers seem not to have read Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics and the English Language,” in which Orwell equates the use of such emotionally-charged codewords with an absence of thought. With becoming an intellectual puppet.

“Fascism” is one of those vague terms which can mean anything and everything. If it means the powerful state regulating the lives of the populace, for their own benefit; or directing the culture; or a combination of big business, government, and academia; or an imperialist/interventionist foreign policy—then one might be speaking about Trump opponents as much as his supporters.

Curiously for these two anti-fascists who inhabit prestigious positions at universities—those renowned bastions of free thought—there’s no mention of the fascist-like thuggery used to violently shut down, at universities, the unorthodox views of writers Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray. George Saunders wants to examine America “point by point,” but not too thoroughly, and not all of it.

There’s also nary a peep from our anti-fascist established literary world about actual fascist regimes such as Iran, which executes dissident writers. Who remembers Hashem Shabani, hung by the regime two years ago?

No unease either by Lipsyte and Saunders, Saunders and Lipsyte, at the recent Oscar given to film director Asghar Farhadi, an apologist, or at least advocate, for the regime. Call him the Mikhail Sholokhov or Leni Riefenstahl of Iran.

A Second point I could make in deconstructing George Saunders is when he says, in response to the notion that America is falling apart, “Have you looked at the unemployment rate lately?”

Wow! Very smug. Quite an answer. One can see the expression on Mr. Saunders’ face as he says this. BUT—the official unemployment rate is one of the phoniest statistics going, in that it doesn’t take into account the enormous number of people who’ve dropped out of the workforce. This is shown by a large spike in the number of Americans on disability, food stamps, and other support systems. In the past ten years I’ve been on unemployment; been unemployed and not on unemployment; and underemployed. I have a living sense of the guidelines, what’s counted and what’s not.

A better indication might be the nation’s labor participation rate, which has been hovering around 62% one of the lowest levels ever. Over 94 million Americans are out of the work force. A more realistic unemployment rate has been given by various authorities as anywhere from 9.5% to 20%.

Beyond Saunders’ glib response is the actuality of America itself. From my perspective in Detroit, the idea that America is NOT falling apart is jaw-dropping. What planet are these men living on? Bubble writers for sure. Not just Detroit is in ruins, but many of its outlying suburbs. Lately I’ve been traveling on a regular basis through the long stretch of downriver communities. As I do I count endless numbers of closed businesses—closed for years—along Fort Street, the main avenue. Away from Fort, in cities like Lincoln Park and Southgate, are more than a few large for-lease shopping plazas, every store closed. Parking lots empty, windows boarded. Ghost towns within ghost towns.

The economic depression of the past ten years hit not just Michigan, but the entire industrial heartland of America. Do Saunders and Lipsyte have a clue as to why these states voted for Trump? Do they have an inkling that (evident flaws aside) there were solid economic reasons to vote for the man?

If George Saunders with his “combative compassion” ever wants to decontruct the damage so-called free trade has done to America and its working people, or how it’s enriched a handful of multi-nationals and billionaires but no one else, he can do so. He could discuss as well such phenomena as the ongoing opioid/heroin epidemic taking place outside elite bubbles. Perhaps understand where the flow comes from. He might—hard to fathom, I know—learn something.


A much greater deconstruction could take place of Saunders and Lipsyte’s assumptions about American literature. As much or more than their politics, the attitude is monolithic and insular. In their eyes everything and everybody about the established order is wonderful. That it’s marginalized within the greater culture is outside the scope of the permissable view, so they won’t go there. Within the bubble, all is well. Writers like Lipsyte and Saunders wear chests full of medals affirming the wonderfulness.

Status quo gods of lit like David Foster Wallace are assumed. George Saunders gives the obligatory nod to him, along with the rest of the name-dropping. In the writing programs, students are paying large sums of money, going into extensive debt, to learn the approved-but-artistically-dead names, as they’re taught a style of literature for which there’s no audience.

That every writer must have an MFA degree is assumed. Currently I’m editor of an ambitious literary web site, New Pop Lit. I read many submissions from MFA students and graduates. Most are well-written, at least at the sentence level. I accept for publication at the site few of their stories and poems, because they’re not designed for the general reader. They’re designed to impress a Sam Lipsyte or George Saunders. Often they’re too well written—paragraph upon paragraph of finely-crafted sentences coagulating upon themselves, with no pace and little flow.

Saunders and Lipsyte don’t question the nature of the art, and they don’t question the philosophical underpinnings of that art—namely, postmodernism. A philosophy, ironically enough, which has its origins in fascist or pre-fascist writers like Heiddegger and Nietzsche. Some of us view that philosophy as a wrong turn.

The third aspect of American literature today which a Saunders or Lipsyte won’t question is how it’s produced. We see an enormously expensive, top-heavy structure of five book conglomerates based in Manhattan skyscrapers. Approved writers are fed into them via writing programs; screened by layers of agents and editors. Attached to the machine is the largesse writers receive from both governments and tax-shelter foundations. The result is tops-down art, fully endorsed by the most powerful, affluent, and connected parts of society. An aristocracy based on conformity more than birth.

(Alternatives to the established system are addressed in a series of essays I’m writing about new writers. I call the series “Hyper-Talents of the New Literary Age.” Find the essays at NPL’s Op-Ed page. For those interested in alternative ideas, it’s worth a look.)


What you won’t receive from literary apparatchiks like George Saunders and Sam Lipsyte are criticisms and alternatives. My experience is that the literary status quo hasn’t reacted well to criticism—whether criticism of the art (which, remember, is wonderful), or of the process: corruptions in how grants are awarded and such. The attitude is really little different from that toward those whose political ideas are unsettling or provocative. In the academy, outside influences are unwanted. Doors must remain barricaded, windows shuttered.

The drawback to this mode of operation is that when change finally does come, it will be more extreme than it could have been. Thwarted attempts at shaking up the system last decade came from the Left. Today, many young intellectuals banging the drums against the system come from the Nietzschean Right. Not an opposition to current academic ideas (identity politics and the like) but a funhouse mirror image of them. Ideas of the academy thrown back at it, a toxic version.


The status quo literary system is beyond change—though alternative ideas can be sharpened through occasional interaction with it. It’s marginalized within the culture, and will become increasingly marginalized, its leading figures like George Saunders retreating further into the obscurity of their art and the sinecured security of their bubble. The objective of upstart outfits like New Pop Lit should be to create a more exciting alternative—one not looking down on Americans, of all stripes, from on high, but living and moving in a hectic fight for survival among them. As DIYers we’re forced to produce new, living art without approval, without connections, without institutions, without largesse—which puts all impetus on the art itself; and on those independent-minded writers willing to push through the boundaries of the acceptable. The future belongs to them.